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History: Lacking funds, hopes for tourism boom fade

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

As chairman of the state’s Francis Marion Trail Commission, Mark Buyck III of Florence feels like the captain of a ship in dry dock.

The commission, authorized by the state legislature in 2005, hasn’t been funded for eight years. “It can be revived,” said Buyck, a Florence lawyer, “but right now it’s more or less dormant.”

Gen. Francis Marion is a legendary hero of the American Revolution. There are 35 towns and 17 counties in America named Marion. Baby Boomers remember the Swamp Fox as a Disney series. Professional tourism planners looked at the Revolutionary War sites in the counties inside a diamond-shaped area bordered by Florence, Georgetown, Charleston and Manning and called it a gold mine. “Francis Marion is one of the great stories in American history,” said the commission’s first chairman Ben Zeigler, another Florence lawyer. “People in California and Texas know about Francis Marion, but there’s very little in terms of hard historical evidence you can see, touch and feel. These sites are out there, many only vaguely understood or positively identified or explored archaeologically.”

County Administrator Sel Hemingway, a former member of the trail commission, said the idea was to get travelers to leave the interstate highways for the rural roads of the Pee Dee and Lowcountry. Interpretive centers at the four corners of the diamond would draw tourists and pique their interest. These heritage tourists are highly prized, according to county tourism director Lauren Joseph. They travel in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall and spend more money. “People who like Francis Marion like real food, the kind we produce: seafood in Georgetown, butter beans and rice in Lake City,” Zeigler said. “People who come for heritage come for the culture and the authentic experience. They don’t want some Disney, chain-restaurant version.”

Zeigler viewed the trail commission as an economic development tool that had the added value of preserving the landscape and rural heritage of some of the state’s poorest counties. “I thought it was a very compelling argument,” he said.

The legislature agreed, overriding a veto of the commission’s first funding by Gov. Mark Sanford. Zeigler, chairman of the board of the Belle Baruch Foundation, said work on the trail began with a lot of optimism. The commission hired an Irish firm, Tourism Development International, to do a preliminary study. “They said you’ve got an incredible story. If you develop this product — that’s the term they used — you will have a really powerful tourism draw. That was the charge we had: develop product and create an interpretive mechanism around it,” Zeigler said.

The commission signed a contract with Steve Smith of the University of South Carolina Department of Anthropology. “He’s the guru on Francis Marion and military archaeology,” Zeigler said. After a year of research identifying historic sites like the battlefield at Black Mingo Creek, Venters Landing near Johnsonville, Marion’s first campsite across from Snow’s Island and other significant places, it was time for the next step. The Yeager Company, a national leader in historic interpretive planning, did a master plan that won a national award, Zeigler said.

The Great Recession threw the state’s budget into a downward spiral, and the commission’s money was among the first things cut. “I think it was a lack of imagination on the state level,” Zeigler said. “They thought of it as a fluffy boondoggle history project. It was frustrating toward the end.”

He said the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism was no help either. “The weakest link we had in all this was the state,” Zeigler said. “PRT wasn’t big on product development. They wanted to promote Charleston and the beach, sexy stuff. When it came to understanding heritage tourism and the need to develop a product and sustain it, we didn’t get a lot of attention. It wasn’t for lack of local support. It was lack of economic administrative firepower and resources.” The commission’s request for a tourism grant was denied by PRT. Then the legislature took money from tourism for other priorities. “We never got a dime,” Zeigler said. “That’s the way we do things in South Carolina. It was disappointing.”

Georgetown County, Zeigler said, was one of the best supporters of the trail. “Georgetown immediately grasped it would be good,” he said. “I think Georgetown did as much, if not more, than any other county to support it. In order for it to work, it has to have regional buy-in. Everybody has to be on board for the trail to work. The only way to do that is for the state to get behind it.”

The public’s interest can be documented. Lee Brockington, senior interpreter at Hobcaw Barony, led outings to sites in Georgetown, Williamsburg and Clarendon counties with the trail’s first executive director Bob Barrett for Coastal Carolina University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Many of the students were newcomers and surprised to learn about South Carolina’s role in the Revolution. “If only we were able to reach the casual tourist and not just the new residents in this educational effort,” Brockington said, “think of the difference it would make.”

Zeigler said the state’s tourism machine is focused on beaches and golf because they are easy, obvious. The state’s economic development efforts are directed at new plants and expansions. “Heritage tourists would put money into the local economies of some of the poorest counties of the state,” he said. “In order to do that, the public sector has to develop the product and infrastructure. What was so appealing to me as a person from this area and a former chairman of the board of the Pee Dee Land Trust, it allows us to keep being who we are. We can celebrate that and also make money off of it.”

Zeigler said mom-and-pop businesses would benefit most. “That’s one of the beauties of it,” he said. “It gets out in all these communities.” Venters Landing near Johnsonville, where Marion took command of the Williamsburg Militia, has become home to river guide services. “There are all sorts of ancillary businesses that utilize that river landing as a place to create value for people,” Zeigler said. “It’s a powerful thing but hard to quantify. You’ve got to have people at the state level with imagination and the ability to understand that.”

S.C. House Rep. Lee Hewitt and state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, both newly elected, said they would look into the trail commission when they get to Columbia in January.

“I feel bad the whole thing has gone silent, but we lost our support,” said Buyck, the commission chairman. “We had people who wanted it to happen.”

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